Basic Pie Crust
Knowing how to make a pie crust is one of those fundamental skills that every baker / pastry chef needs to have in their arsenal.
Whether you are making a flaky, mealy or enriched crust (a crust made with egg and other rich fatty ingredients), learning how to make this basic type of dough will allow you to make a multitude of items, both sweet and savoury, including pies, tarts, quiche, galettes or rustic style tarts, turnovers and more.
The technique is relative simple and you can easily make it either with or without equipment.
For beginners I would highly recommend making your first few doughs by hand so that you can (literally) get a feel for how a proper pie dough is supposed to look and feel.
The keys to making the perfect pie dough come down to A) using ice cold ingredients and B) using the right amount of liquid.
Why Cold Butter ?
It’s extremely important to use both cold (hard) butter and ice cold water when making pie dough.
Unlike a cookie or cake recipe where we use soft or melted butter with the aim of blending it into the other ingredients, when it comes to pie dough we want to keep the butter chunks intact and separate from the other ingredients yet evenly distributed throughout the dough.
To maybe explain this better, rather than making a thick paste of flour and butter, we are looking for flour with little pieces of butter chunks spread throughout the flour. By keeping the butter cold, it stays intact vs becoming one with the flour.
On that note, if you are planning on making your pie dough by hand, either use a pastry cutter to break up your butter or before beginning, first rinse your hands in cold water, then put on gloves and try to handle the butter using just your finger tips as the heat from your hands can actually heat up and soften the butter.
What Kind of Pie Are You Making?
Something to consider when you are breaking in the butter is what type of pie are you making?
Flaky pie crusts are usually used for pies where you bake the filling and crust together. A flaky crust is made by breaking up the butter into larger pea-sized pieces. When the pie bakes, these larger chunks of butter melt. The liquid component of the butter then evaporates and creates steam which in turn creates the holes or flakes in the pastry.
Flakey crusts are delicate and soft on the palette. However, light airy pastry while lovely also translates into room for moisture to come in. A lighter flakier crust is nice when you’re trying to get to the warm soft interior of an apple or fruit pie, but less enjoyable when it gets soggy from absorbing too much of a filling. Part of what makes a pie so enjoyable are the different textures.
Therefore, for filled pies (pies where you first bake the crust, then add some kind of cooked filling like a pastry cream or lemon curd) typically you would want to use a mealy crust. This is made by breaking the butter up into very small pieces that when mixed into the flour will resemble a fine crumb or meal. These mealy style pie crusts are denser when baked and won’t absorb as much liquid as a flaky crust.
How Much Water Do I Need?
As for the liquid, the exact amount will differ slightly every time that you make it, and will depend on several factors including the ambient temperature and humidity in the room, how forcefully you scooped your flour, even the temperature outside that day. What you need to know is what you’re looking for in your final product.
You only need enough liquid to get your dough to come together and to not have any raw or dry sandy parts. Too much liquid, coupled with mixing will result in an overly elastic dough. If we were baking bread, elasticity is a good thing; it’s what gives things like bread that springiness or bounce. When working with pie dough we want the exact opposite of bounce; we want the dough to roll out easily and more importantly to hold its shape. That means we want as little elasticity as possible.
So let’s get to it.
Here’s what you will need to make your basic pie dough.
- Either a food processor with blade attachment
A large mixing bowl and pastry cutter
- Knife to cut the butter
- 1 1/4 cups All Purpose Flour
- 1/2 cup (or 1 stick) cold unsalted butter
- 1 Tbsp sugar
- 1/4 tsp salt
- Ice cold water
- Add your flour, salt and sugar into your bowl or food processor. Pulse a few times or mix around to get those ingredients blended.
- Cut your butter into medium sized chunks. Remember to keep your butter as cold as possible.
- Add the butter chunks into the dry ingredients:
- For the food processor, pulse until you achieve your desired size of crumb (cornmeal like for a mealy crumb or pea sized pieces for a flaky crust). If you’re doing this by hand, simply cut into the butter using our pastry cutter.
- If you have no pastry cutter, simple crumble the butter and flour between your fingers. This rubbing or crumbling technique is referred to as a “sabler” in classic French Cuisine terminology.
- Add in the ice water 1 tablespoon at a time while pulsing or mixing with your fingers. From experience, I can safely say that you will need about 3 or 4 Tbsp of the ice water. Pulse or mix just until the dough begins to form into a ball.
Empty the dough onto your work surface, and squeeze all the stray dry bits together into one dough ball. Flatten the ball into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate.
To Use the Dough:
You will have to remove the dough from the fridge about 30-45 minutes before using. You want the dough to be malleable enough to roll out without killing your arms, but not so soft that it will roll too thin too easily and tear.
A good test is to press your finger into the disc which should be met with slight resistance.
Standard dough thickness when rolling out is usually 1/4” thick. You want it to be thin, but not so thin that you can see through it or that it rips.
In case a tear does occur, just press the torn edges together with your fingers.
To roll it out, always flour your surface and rolling pin, and roll from the centre out, first a few times up and down then rotate the dough 180 and repeat.
This pie dough can keep in either the fridge or freezer. The fridge is fine for a few days since there are no raw ingredients like eggs that could go rancid, but if you were making an enriched dough you would have to use it within 24 hours of making it.
The dough freezes very well too so if you are ever anticipating having to make several pies in a short amount of time, you can prep your doughs in advance and freeze them until needed.